Intelligence And Counterintelligence News Review

Battle for the Skies Over Ukraine

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Some of the biggest news from the war in Ukraine this week came out of the blue, you might say. First, there was the collision between a Russian SU-27 war plane and a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper reconnaissance drone. Then came word that Poland was transferring four MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine (followed on Friday by news that Slovakia plans to give its entire fleet of Mig-29s to Kyiv). We’d also learned that one of our B-52 strategic bombers had flown a provocative mission along western Russian airspace.

SU-27 spraying fuel on MQ-9 Reaper drone (DoD photo via A.P.)

All this was treated carefully by David Cenciotti, the founding editor of The Aviationist, one of the world’s leading chroniclers of military aviation news and analysis.

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I’d initially invited Cenciotti, the author of five aviation related books, a former lieutenant in the Italian Air Force and graduate in computer engineering, to come on the SpyTalk podcast to talk about another espionage-related air war development, the emergence of a new, souped up, high altitude, unmanned U.S. reconnaissance plane, the SR-72, sometimes called “the son of Blackbird.” But then all the other stuff hit the fan—literally, in the MQ-9 case. So we covered it all in out 35-minute SpyTalk podcast chat.

Here are a few excerpts (edited for brevity and clarity):

SpyTalk: From your reporting and other reports, the identifying transponder of the MQ-9 was turned off. It’s not like the Russians can’t see it. So what’s the purpose of turning off the transponder?

Cenciotti: This is almost standard practice for that kind mission. Actually, we cannot be completely sure that the transponder was off. I mean, the fact that the MQ-9 was not tracking live on or any other fly tracking website or app doesn’t mean that transponder was completely turned off. Anyway, they separate themselves from other aircraft in the international area space and far from a busy airport.

SpyTalk: In contrast you also reported about a very provocative nuclear-capable B-52 flying near Russian airspace, deep into the Gulf of Finland…

Cenciotti: This means that it was a show force (but) not the first time we have seen something like this. It was for certain the first time that a U.S. bomber flew that close to the Russian airspace and to St. Petersburg that we could track online.

SpyTalk: Let’s talk about the new SR-72 spy plane. Why do we need another new spy plane given all our satellites and so on?

Cenciotti: It’s a successor to the retired and pretty famous Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. This is going to be a hypersonic aircraft [that will] be able to deliver some kind of ordinance or to carry weapons, and also to perform a recognizance mission.

SpyTalk: Weapons?

Cenciotti: All we know is based on just a few details that have been little by little released by Lockheed and then confirmed by U.S. Air Force. And based on what has been provided so far this is going to be probably an unmanned aircraft.

SpyTalk: But why do we need an SR-72 when we are still flying the U-2s and we have satellites?

Cenciotti: U-2s can be shot down. A satellite orbit is known to the enemy, which means that they can hide stuff from satellites. So if you have only a very small window of opportunity to get a picture or to strike a specific target, a hypersonic aircraft can do the job—it can reach anyplace in the world in one and a half hours—which means that you can penetrate an enemy airspace, get the job done, and return without the enemy air defense being able to counter the threat.

SpyTalk: We’re just learning that Poland is going to transfer some MiG-29s to Ukraine, four of them. What can those MiG-19s do in Ukraine to change the balance of power?

Cenciotti: I’m not sure they can change the balance, but for sure they will help the Ukrainian Air Force, and quickly, because the Ukrainian already fly the MiG-29 Fulcrum. They can carry out many types of missions, from air defense to the suppression of the enemy air defenses, especially by integrating some Western provided weapons like the AGM 88 high speed antiradiation missile which can attack enemy radars. They can also carry JDAM smart bombs with a range in excess of 45 miles.

SpyTalk: We’ve seen how the Ukrainians, a far weaker power with far less manpower and so on, have been able to outsmart the Russians on the ground. Have we seen, or will we see, evidence of that in the sky as well—of Ukrainian pilots out outsmarting Russian pilots?

Cenciotti: What we have seen, what we were not expecting in the beginning, was the Ukrainian forces being able to resist, and this is something that can also be safely said for the Ukrainian Air Force.

SpyTalk: One of the reasons that the United States has been reluctant to supply the Ukrainians with F-16s is that we figured that the Ukrainians might fly over the border into Russia and carry out airstrikes in Russia and embroil us and NATO in a direct conflict with the Russians. Do you worry that the Ukrainians will use these new MiG-29s to carry out airstrikes in Russia? What would stop them from carrying out airstrikes in Russia?

Cenciotti: Actually almost nothing. There have been actions done beyond the borders, nighttime counter attacks using gunship helicopters, for instance. So I think that we need to consider the possibility [of them]…carrying out some kind of action outside the Ukrainian airspace inside the Russian one. I think that probably this is not going to lead to a real escalation for the moment, but this kind of threat is existing, and the reason why we have seen aircraft batteries appearing on the rooftops of some Moscow buildings.###

Cenciotti had far more interesting, engaging things to say. Take a listen over at the SpyTalk podcast.

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